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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Tales From the Hood (1995)


Written by Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott
Directed by Rusty Cundieff

Clarence Williams III:  Mr. Simms
Wings Hauser: Officer Strom
David Alan Grier:  Carl
Corbin Bernsen:  Duke Metger
Rusty Cundieff:  Richard Garvey

I saw this one during its theatrical release, having cajoled two members of my high-school Dungeons and Dragons group into going to a dollar show about 40 minutes away from Wheaton in order to see it. I've always been a sucker for anthology horror movies, and I've always liked those rare examples of actual left-wing politics in widely released movies. I got both with this one, happily. It's like Amicus saw the box office returns for Shaft and decided to make a niche product, and the writer/director put his own stamp on the material.

Rusty Cundieff also directed Fear of a Black Hat, a fake documentary that could pretty fairly be called "This Is Spinal Rap", and was one of the correspondents on Michael Moore's one-season satirical show TV Nation. His previous work showed a playful familiarity with the conventions and formal styles of different types of presentation (the musical documentary and journalistic feature story) and it's pretty likely that people who wanted to work on a new project with Michael Moore in 1994 could be safely described as members of the liberal left.

Cundieff's mastery of the required elements of a horror anthology film shine through from the start of the film. I'm going to assume most of my readers have seen at least one movie like Creepshow or From Beyond the Grave; in those movies and many other anthology films, there's a framing story that explains the stories being shown to the viewer (an EC-styled comic book in the former and the consequences of trying to cheat an antique store owner who deals in supernaturally powerful items in the latter). Another possibility (like the ones used in Tales from the Crypt and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors) is to have a host figure telling a group of people various cautionary stories as a way to lead into the episodic narratives that make up the bulk of the film. Tales From the Hood goes for both--Clarence Williams III plays Mr. Simms, a mortician in a run down urban center ("urban" for a given value of "black people live there"). The mortuary is a masterpiece of production design on a budget, all aging splintery wood in need of paint on the outside, stained glass windows on the first floor, and the requisite pipe organ inside so the mortician can play atmospheric music while he's waiting for the framing story to start properly. I imagine Mr. Simms gets sheet music from the Tall Man for his birthday every year.

And seconds after the opening credits, it does. Three gang members drive up to the mortuary at night and immediately remark that the building looks evil, but they're still going to go inside because it's business. The kind of business where they need to be armed, and they're retrieving "the shit" for someone that scares them more than the creepy funeral home does. At night. With organ music playing. After fortifying their nerves with weed and shit-talking, they boldly ring the doorbell and jump back like startled cats when Simms reveals himself impossibly quickly with a screen-filling grin. One of them turns to run and smacks his head on a flowerpot hanger; Simms provides an ice pack and sympathy inside the parlor and the leader of the Three Stooges reveals that they're after a drug shipment that Simms stumbled over in an alley and is keeping in the funeral home. During the ensuing conversation, the mortician opens one of the caskets and shows an embalmed corpse. One of the three gang members is interested in shop talk about embalming; the other two just want to get the shit and leave. "Oh, don't worry," Simms reassures them. "You'll get the shit."

My friend Scott and I have quoted that line to each other in virtually every conversation we've had for nineteen years, incidentally.

The first body in the parlor belongs to a black police officer named Clarence; on one of his first patrols in a high-rent white neighborhood he gets sent to the car to run the license plate of a black motorist being harassed by three white patrolmen. The motorist hits back after being physically assaulted and having his head put through his own car window; the white police beat him to death while the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" plays on the soundtrack. To my discredit, I didn't know anything about the song back in 1995 when I first saw the film but it underscores the scene; the police are going to murder an innocent black man with total impunity because that is what happened in America for decades--and, as George Zimmerman could tell you, never stopped happening. And by using that song in the film, Cundieff is showing that it's not just a murder taking place, but a lynching. The killers can expect to get away clean because the legal system will look the other way when the victim is a black man and the police can count on each other to mutually reinforce their accounts of what happened. (And again, let's not act like this is the fantasy part of the film.) Clarence recognizes the motorist's name when he runs the license plates on his squad car's computer; he's Martin Moorehouse, a social activist who fights a crooked system to get corrupt and thuggish police fired for their crimes. The scene of the three white cops beating him mercilessly brings to mind the videotaped beating of Rodney King, as it assuredly was supposed to.

Strom and his partner say they're going to take Moorehouse to the hospital but shoot him up with drugs and send his car off a pier instead, with him in it. Not only did they murder someone they found inconvenient but they've destroyed his reputation and delegitimized his efforts to clean up the nameless city where this is all taking place. At least in the first story, the monsters are wearing badges. And, to the story's credit, Clarence is wracked with guilt when he realizes what happened and knows the extent of his own complicity in the murder and coverup. It's one thing to get snowed by someone more clever than you are, but another not to come clean after the fact. An indeterminate amount of time later, Clarence winds up living in a one-room flophouse apartment and drinking gallons of booze to blot out the memories. He's also having nightmares where Moorehouse commands him to "bring them to me" but it isn't until he starts seeing visions of the crucified activist ordering him to bring the cops that he agrees.

And so it turns out that the first story in the anthology is an old school EC Comics vengeful-corpse story. Clarence summons the police to Moorehouse's grave to pay "their respects" to the murder victim, telling them that after they visit the grave he'll be completely satisfied. Strom pisses on the grave and browbeats third cop Billy into also desecrating Moorehouse's resting place. And we get another example of Cundieff knowing the structure and form of the material; the bad guys have to suffer in stories like this. And Billy getting yanked down into the grave dick-first by a furious undead murder victim would fit the bill. I should add a comment here--I'm pretty sure I know who Strom and Newton's names are references to, as well as Clarence (the black man who joins the white power structure to get ahead but is considered worthless by the people exploiting him) but I'm just not sure if Billy is named after anyone in the early 1990s conservative political scene.

The two surviving cops flee after emptying their guns into the risen cadaver (there's a great jump scare in response to the question "How far back is he?" when it turns out that Moorhouse, on foot and walking, is catching up to a speeding police car). Strom gets his head torn off and Newton shoots his own cop car to detonate the gas tank and incinerate the revenant. Newton lives long enough to run and winds up stabbed with a dozen hypodermics before getting stuck in a graffiti mural of Moorehouse; there are some great low-budget POV shots and a spiffy melting head when he gets his comeuppance.

And Clarence? He's just as guilty as the three white cops. As the risen body of Martin Moorehouse asks him, "Where were you when I needed you...brother?" As Clarence already knows, he was nowhere to be found. He spends the rest of his life in a padded cell, framed for the deaths of the three evil police. His body, in a nice suit instead of a straitjacket, is in a coffin in Simms' parlor.

Back to the Simms Family Funeral Home for another piece of the framing story! We get to watch Clarence Williams III monologue about perception and reality, and I find myself enjoying his Frederick Douglass hair and amazing outfit. He's wearing something that looks like a green zoot suit and velvet smoking jacket had a kid, a tailored silk shirt, a green cravat, and a jaunty white carnation in the buttonhole. He's also constantly toting--but never using--a cane. (That's a clue, Dear Reader; he's not nearly as soft or unimpressive as he appears to be.) He's also tilting his head as he addresses the three gang members so that in every scene, he's looking down even when they're the same height. It's great physical work from Williams in this performance, and it goes spectacularly well with the way he purrs his way through the dialogue. He's having fun with the three interlopers, telling them stories and freaking them out with the sight of the second body he shows them--the audience is prevented from seeing it because the coffin lid blocks our view but all three of the gang members are visibly repulsed.

The second story is about a frightened little boy with an overactive imagination. Walter is the new kid at an elementary school and his first day kinda sucks--bully Tyrone starts beating on him to establish dominance. The school nurse points out a black eye to his homeroom teacher Richard Garvey (played by Rusty Cundieff; I have to say, if I were making a horror anthology movie I wouldn't play the sensitive teacher character myself. I wanna be a villain! Or at least a mad scientist). The nurse notices that Walter has a black eye that's a couple days older than the bruises from his playground altercation (and as a much older viewer I realized with a shudder that she's probably had lots of practice identifying kids that have been beaten at home). Walter says that "the monster" hurt him--after his father died, the monster came into his life. In the manner of all stories where children and monsters coexist, his teacher doesn't believe him. And, in fact, Walter gets the last word in the discussion:  "He said no one would believe me".

Scenes of Walter in his bedroom at night are intercut with his school days; something with claws and raspy breathing like a seismic event is thumping at his bedroom door and pushes the furniture blocking it aside in order to get in. Walter is understandably withdrawn at school and his teacher strikes up a conversation during recess (Walter is staying inside to draw rather than playing outside). He's making drawings of the monster that terrifies him; a classmate told him that her mother told her to draw things she was afraid of and then tear up the papers to show control over her fears. After several red-eyed demonic creatures, there's also a picture of Tyrone the bully. Alone in the classroom, Walter picks up the drawing from the floor where it fell and crumples it up. And outside, at the same time, the bully starts to scream...

Garvey visits Walter's home, telling his mother about the monsters and the injuries he's seen on Walter at school. The conversation with his mom goes badly enough, but when his stepfather Carl shows up (played viciously against type by comedian David Alan Grier) things go from bad to far, far worse. Garvey thinks that he's helping things by bringing the issues to his parents' attention, but it turns out that Carl is physically abusive to his wife (and the source of Walter's bruises and emotional withdrawal as well). The sequence where Carl confronts Walter about the drawing of the "monster" is a standout in the film--the shadow that Carl casts on the bedroom wall is horned and clawed while the actor stands in the frame, completely normal. His voice on the soundtrack is booming and distorted until we see Grier's face in a reverse shot, and then it's just a "normal" man screaming at his stepson (and the dead-eyed expression on his face as he beats his wife is without a doubt the most frightening thing in the film). I had absolutely no idea that David Alan Grier had this performance in him and I'm glad in a way that he's never shown how awful and monstrous he can be in anything else.

Garvey charges back into the house when he hears and sees the beatings that Carl is dishing out inside, but is completely unequal to the task of defending Walter or his mother. But that picture that Carl was so mad about? Well, he's about to learn what happens to abusive assholes in supernatural revenge stories. And the charred and twisted remains in the coffin look like they're still in agony, which is better than Carl deserves.

The three gang members at the funeral home are then treated to a bare-bones lecture on foot-tall "soul dolls" serving as a way station between life and afterlife; the reaction shot where all three of them flinch as Simms yells at them is a complete treat.

Down in the South, Duke Metger is trying to get re-elected as governor to an unnamed state. We get an establishing shot of the old plantation house he lives in, and then he looks at a forthcoming campaign ad about racial quotas keeping white people out of work unfairly. Incidentally, that ad is based on a real Jesse Helms re-election campaign commercial; that's another thing I didn't know about when I saw the movie back in 1995. For that matter, Duke himself is named after a former Louisiana state representative who was also a former grand dragon of the KKK. That reference was so thuddingly obvious that even I picked up on it back in the mid 1990s.

A live news report covering protestors out in front of the plantation is interrupted by a man shouting about how the souls are going to take vengeance and that there's no peace in the dollhouse. The smooth, media-savvy protest leader says the dollhouse is a myth and the blue-collar guy ranting and yelling says it isn't. (SPOILER:  It isn't. You can always trust crazy ranting people in this kind of movie.)

And it turns out that there's certainly a reason to want some vengeance. The plantation house that Duke's using as his campaign headquarters was the site to a post-Civil War massacre when the house owner massacred his slaves rather than free them; watching the light-skinned political consultant's reactions to the story adds another layer of discomfort to the segment; he's got to shut up and let Duke ramble about lynchings and burnings if he wants a paycheck (he does, admittedly, show a little bit of spine and call his client a "sick fuck", but is also being paid very handsomely to make that sick fuck look gubernatorial). And the last thing Duke says is that the soul dolls pictured on a mural were real objects, meant to hold the souls of the murdered slaves until they could cross over to Heaven. And, in the way that these things always happen in horror movies, the dolls are supposed to be somewhere on the plantation to this very day. Although Duke says he looked everywhere for them, and they never turned up.

It wouldn't be much of a story if the dolls didn't make an appearance, would it? The camera pans down past the floorboards to show dust and soil in a tiny cramped space, and a soul doll lying in the dirt while a violin sting plays on the soundtrack. And during a "defensive media skills" practice session, the election consultant trips and falls down a flight of stairs, breaking his neck. And what was there at the top of the staircase? Wasn't that the same doll that was hidden away underneath the floorboards? The same doll shows up in Duke's car and he throws it out the window. Replaying the tape of the consultant's death he sees the doll at the top of the stairs (which he had completely missed before), and the mural on the wall has one empty spot where a soul doll was previously pictured. The bad news is that there's a couple dozen more of them in the painting...

This segment is a siege-horror story as well as a nod to the killer-African-doll segment in Trilogy of Terror. Again, Cundieff and Darin Scott's screenplay shows they know exactly the kind of material that audiences expect and a deep familiarity with Amicus-style horror anthologies while adding racial themes that resonate through the segment. Corbin Bernsen adds a great deal to the movie and they were lucky to get him; he looks fantastic as he slowly loses his control looking for the animated doll(s). And the sound design for the tiny little footsteps is superb; so much of what makes this segment great had to be added in post-production during the slow-burn segments. I even found myself sympathizing just a tiny bit with Duke as he looks through the empty house trying to find the doll--he's a bigoted piece of shit but he's also terrified and alone (and, soon, outnumbered). And the malevolent folk-art dolls are a real credit to the Chiodo Brothers' efforts. The stop-motion looks great in nearly every sequence (although, to be fair some of the compositing looks a little bit off and the dolls don't quite look like they're there due to lighting mismatches during part of the siege).

Things for Duke go from bad (one of the dolls is blank in the painting) to worse (four of them) to horrible (every single one is loose in the house), and there's a little more political commentary when he panics and literally tries wrapping himself in the American flag to protect himself. The story fades immediately back to the funeral home; we've seen a bigoted asshole get swarmed and torn apart by soul dolls and we don't need to see anything else.

The gang members and Mr. Simms go down another floor (hint) to a basement paneled with dark-red-stained wood (hint!), and find a coffin with a body in it that they recognize (HINT!); Simms tells the story of Crazy K, a young black man who shot a gang member he recognized, was immediately shot in return by three of his victim's friends, who were then gunned down by police (HIIIIIIIINT!). Crazy K survives the attack and spends years in prison, eventually getting placed into solitary confinement because he's too violent and antisocial to be near the other inmates. Doctor Cushing offers him a chance to be released if he's willing to "consent to behavior modification", and he takes the chance without considering anything. He gets taken to a dungeon and placed in a cage next to a white murderer whose torso is covered with Nazi tattoos. A little unfriendly conversation later and the white supremacist offers Crazy K a chance to live through the coming genocidal race war, telling him that blacks who join the white side of the apocalyptic conflict will be spared and allowed to live as slaves after the conflict is over. Crazy K responds by punching him in the face (aiming neatly through the bars that separate their cells); the Nazi asks him what color his murder victims were, showing him that he's already on the genocidal killer's side.

Dr. Cushing is the only person in the segment that calls Crazy K by his given name, Jerome, and she tells him that if he goes through the behavior-modification process successfully he'll be freed, and if he fails he'll be locked in jail for the rest of his life. Jerome is led to a metal rack in shackles, strapped down and restrained in fetishistic pieces of rubber and leather (as well as getting a nasogastric tube shoved into his nose and gagged). Cushing really seems to enjoy twisting one of the restraint screws one final time, by the way. I'm not sure she's as interested in rehabilitation as one might think...

The process begins, and it looks like Dr. Cushing might well have been a fan of Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick as well as a former employee of the Parallax Corporation. But the shock treatment for Jerome is specifically tied to American racial history, with shots of Klan rallies and proud white men smiling in souvenir photos of lynching victims intercut with flashbacks to Jerome's own murders when he was Crazy K. It's a sequence almost impossible to watch, raw and unforgiving and brutal as it indicts the past and the present in turn. Dr. Cushing tells Jerome that Cain was the first murderer and slew his brother, then asks how many brothers he has slain himself.

The next part of the process drops Jerome into a sensory deprivation chamber; his bravado is completely gone at this point and he's openly terrified--apparently the first sequence was even harder for him to watch than it was for the movie audience.

In the chamber Jerome sees the people he killed in his criminal career, including some gang members that he shot because he thought they did something; he remains defiant and furious at all the ghosts from his past until he sees the girl that died because a stray bullet hit her. He seems almost capable of remorse at that point, but refuses to heed the call of his conscience. Dr. Cushing keeps trying to get him to see the light but Jerome rejects the possibility of redemption and we see that this section has quite a bit in common with "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"; truly, Rusty Cundieff and his cowriter have an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre they're working in. And yet they show each shopworn premise through the lens of race in America at the end of the 20th century and bring new life to archetypes like the killer doll, the mad scientist (I quite like that Dr. Cushing is a middle-aged black woman), and of course the archetypal "I will tell you all these stories while you wait in the antechamber to your fate" framing device in an Amicus-style anthology.

And the last few minutes of the film throw out a twist ending and some amazing prosthetic makeup effects that pale in comparison to Clarence Williams III vaulting over the top and turning all the dials up to eleven. After one of the thugs pistol-whips him, Mr. Simms guides the group to a storage room with three coffins in it, telling him that when they open them up, they'll get the shit.

And man, do they ever get it.

It's a real shame that this movie didn't connect with audiences or reviewers at the time--if I had to guess I'd say it was too "urban" for the horror crowd at the time and didn't hang around in theaters long enough to get good word of mouth. Rusty Cundieff directed one more movie after this, a comedy I haven't seen called Sprung, and has directed for television for the remainder of his career until now. It's a damned shame. He's got as much genre knowledge as the ZAZ team that made Airplane!, and he gets performances that range from the better-than-serviceable to the revelatory from a huge cast. Each segment is paced tightly and doesn't overstay its welcome and the framing scenes in the funeral home keep progressing as well; the layout of the mortuary doesn't make any literal sense but the whole group goes down a flight of stairs after each story, eventually winding up in the only place their stories were going to end. I really hope Shout! Factory gets their hands on this one; the DVD is out of print and goes for extortionate prices. But if you're even a marginal fan of the genre, you really owe it to yourself to check this one out. The more you like the old anthology films the more you're going to get out of this film. I've become a high level fan myself, having been lucky enough to see several at the Monster-Rama drive-in movie marathon in Pennsylvania over the last few years and if I'm really lucky, maybe the organizers will get their hands on a print of this one for a future festival.

2 comments:

  1. "if I had to guess I'd say it was too 'urban' for the horror crowd at the time"

    What scared me away from it was the title, combined with an overall understanding of where the horror genre's head was at in 1995. I assumed it was a stupid comedy, something like what Leprechaun in the Hood would be five years later. So naturally I'm intrigued now to learn otherwise.

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  2. You know how a lot of horror movies are just shitty because the filmmakers or financiers think that the audience doesn't care and can't tell they're buying shit? This one was the exact opposite. And it was greeted with critical and commercial indifference, because life is meaningless and full of pain.

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